Landing : Athabascau University

Derrida's Archive: It's a Thing, It's Not a Thing, It's Magic, It's Computers, It's ... Circumcision?

It helps to know (or to think I know) how Jacques Derrida came to write about archives at all. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression is properly about psychoanalysis, and a book about Freud that I have not read, and deconstruction, but it begins with a long meditation on archives. According to historian and archivist Carolyn Steedman, Derrida happened to be giving his talk on the book about Freud in an archive: Freud's house turned into a museum. Archives were a convenient, if tangential, topic. 

I think more of what Derrida writes about archives would make sense to me if I understood thing one about psychoanalysis. But I don't; my brain sort of just shuts down when I encounter it. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I can say that it is currently beyond my skill set to apply psychoanalysis to my life and interests. (Even my choices for go-to queer theory reflect this: "queer Marxist feminism" is a materialist theory, a history, for the most part, of gay liberation and neoliberal urban restructuring. Even if I play with Butler and Halberstam and Edelman, I don't find them as convincing as the materialist approach.)

But I have done my best with Derrida. And fortunately, I know the journal articles I still have to read are authored by lots of people who have also done their best with Derrida (and Foucault and Agamben), and whose best is significantly better than mine, so I don't really have to do the work of applying Derrida's ideas about the "archive" (intangible) to the archive (tangible) myself. It's been done. I just have to know the original material well enough to follow others' arguments and select the most convincing ones. 


A few ideas about archives that I think I am supposed to be getting from Archive Fever:

  1. Archives are both "commencement" and "commandment": formation of a collection in a physical space and cause and effect of authority over history, memory, and future. 
  2. Archives are a simulation, a recording of the real. They keep traces or records of life, but not lives -- printouts, journals, snapshots, but not thoughts or actions. Derrida compares the moment of archiving to pressing the "save" button on a new document on his computer: making a record of the event of him writing that can be transformed, reproduced, kept, collected, or disseminated. 
  3. Because the archive is a simulacrum, or a recording of the real, media form is essential to archivization. The archive of print is an entirely different thing from the archive of digital media -- in terms of what archive, as a verb, means to do, in terms of the form the archive, noun, takes, and in terms of what is archivable, what kind of record can be kept and of what. 
  4. In order for the archive to exist, there must also exist material excluded from or beyond the archive. The archive must have a "horizon" beyond which things stop fitting in, or must be thrown out. (One blog post back, in the discussion in the comments, I mentioned Gayle Rubin's "charmed circle" diagram, which illustrates how sexual practices are collected into what I might call a kind of archive [or archives, plural] of normative and non-normative, and, beyond the diagram, inexpressable behaviours. I think OOB, for which Rubin sometimes wrote, participated in this process of archivization of feminist sexualities, while also resisting the authority of the normative "archive."
  5. In order for the desire to archive (verb) to exist, there must also exist a possibility of destructive forgetfulness: a will to eradicate, Freud's "death drive." (Interestingly, one of those psychoanalytic queer theories is Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, which was his attempt to envision a politics of destruction, a politics of the death drive, rather than one aimed at creating a "better tomorrow." Edelman's ideas are compellingly anti-assimilationist and seem to bear revisiting.)
  6. As Steedman emphasizes, the French title "Mal d'Archive" might be more accurately translated as Archive Sickness or Archive Evil. For Derrida, archives are a means of control, and reducing them to "memory" (as demonstrated above by the revelation that they're a simulation) hides this function.